Belfast has been through a lot. After being heavily bombed in WWII and 30 years of political violence between its Protestant and Catholic residents, much of the city is has been rebuilt and is still recovering. While it’s no longer dangerous as it was a short time ago, there are signs of the years of tension and tragedy, even among its newest and shiniest attractions. Nonetheless, the Northern Ireland port city offers a variety of things to do whether you enjoy history, nature, or a good drink. Here are some of the not-to-be-missed things to see and do in Belfast.
Go to the Titanic Museum
If you’re interested in the tragedy of the Titanic, Belfast is an incredible destination. The shipyard where the Titanic was once built is now home to an incredible museum dedicated to the history of Belfast shipbuilding, the Titanic itself, and the tragedy that followed. For something that has been so often analyzed and dramatized in movies and television, the Titanic Museum really humanizes the tragedy. It’s like a documentary come to life and I can’t rave enough about it.
The exhibit takes you through the ship-building process and how this huge undertaking affected the local community in Belfast; to the different parts of the ship itself including how different cabins looked in each class; and finally to the Titanic’s tragic end as seen through eyes of the survivors and how it has been since studied and explored. The museum has an actual ride, an immersive representation of the interior, and an underwater exploration area where you can see the Titanic remains now.
If all that wasn’t worth the price of admission, your ticket also allows you to tour the SS Nomadic, the former tender of the Titanic and the only White Star Line vessel still in existence. It was responsible for moving passengers, luggage, and mail to and from port cities to the large ocean liners just off-shore. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll also find Titanic Studios in the Titanic Quarter, where the show was filmed for the last decade.
For more Game of Thrones things to see in Belfast and Northern Ireland, check out my other suggestions.
Eat in St. George’s Market
Perhaps the best reason to visit Belfast over the weekend is that St. George’s Market is only open Friday through Sunday. It’s the last surviving Victorian covered market in the city and the food and atmosphere are absolutely not to be missed in Belfast. There is a wide array of light and heart options to kick off your day, which makes this a good place to grab a breakfast bap and a coffee. But the variety of cuisines from all over the world make it even more suitable to visit during lunch so you can have Spanish, Vietnamese, Cuban or French. The market also has a good number of local artisans and craftspeople selling jewelry, home decorations, and other great trinkets for you to take home as a souvenir.
Hang out in the Cathedral Quarter
The Cathedral Quarter is named such because the Belfast Cathedral, or St. Anne’s Cathedral, is situated in the center of the neighborhood. You can visit the Protestant Cathedral for a small fee, which is certainly worth it to see the most impressive example of religious architecture in Belfast. The place is quiet and meticulously adorned, featuring the second largest pipe organ in Northern Ireland. The external architecture features the largest Celtic cross in Ireland. You can see it by going around to the car parking lot next to the church.
The area of the Cathedral Quarter has turned into a cultural quarter of sorts with a lot of street art, small galleries, bookshops, and bars. Some of the area is still in development, which explains why some of it is run down and abandoned. But among the quiet and colorful streets, you’ll find delicious food and a ton of lively pubs. On Commercial Court and the intersection Hill Street, you’ll find some of the best bars in town, like the Duke of York and the Dirty Onion. So have a drink and stay a while.
Do a quick (and free) sightseeing tour
The center of Belfast is very small. There are some walkable sights from city center that you may not necessarily need to visit the inside of but you’ll want to see. Start at City Hall, which has a lovely grounds where you’ll find the Titanic Memorial Garden. You can also see the City Hall visitor exhibition and even tour the inside of the City Hall building for free. See the tour times here. Nearby at the Victoria Square mall, you can get a free 360-degree view of the city from the dome at the top of the building.
As you make your way to the river, you’ll see the Albert Memorial Clock in Queen’s Square, which was built to memorialize Prince Albert, but is more famous for its slight lean. Queen’s Square leads you right to Lagan Wier, which is the perfect vantage point to see the city’s skyline from both sides of the footpath. If you like churches, I also recommend making a quick stop at St. Mary’s Church, which is unique for the grotto that is part of its exterior facade. It’s near the popular Kelly’s Cellars, so if you hear music nearby, it’s probably coming from there.
Tour the Botanic Gardens and the Queen’s Quarter
South of the center of town is the Queen’s Quarter, a beautiful suburb where you’ll find the Botanic Gardens and the Queen’s University, which are both stunning and free to visit. The majestic Queen’s University campus is adjacent to the gardens and it’s totally free to wander around in. With a Great Hall fit for a king, this university is more like a castle than a school.
The Botanic Gardens are also free to visit and are a popular venue for city festivals and events. The park is massive so it’s a good place to get out of the busy city atmosphere and just relax. Inside the gardens, you’ll find the Tropical Ravine and Palm House, where it’s always a tropical paradise. This is also where the Ulster Museum is located, which houses art, ethnography, and science collections relative to Northern Ireland history.
Enjoyed all these is it to see and do in Belfast? Reward yourself with a drink.